Not Here, Deer!


Well, here I am ready to leap off into the abyss of talking about plants that deer don't eat. It has been the most frequently asked question at every Friends Plant Sale. "What can I plant that the deer won't eat?" The answer is always the same: "That depends-----," followed by a whole list of what if's, maybes, not in my experience, might be different with your deer and so on.

So let me start by saying "deer resistant" does not mean "deer proof." Deer resistant is not deer proof in all stages of growth or all growing conditions. Using data from Rutgers University, nursery and landscape professionals, our own vendors, Northern New Jersey Master Gardeners, the staff at the Frelinghuysen Arboretum and my own personal experience we have designated plants on our plant list as being deer resistant, which, loosely translated, means plants that are rarely damaged or seldom severely damaged.

That said, a lot depends on your deer population. Do you have just a family or a herd? What's the weather been like this year? The more severe the weather the more desperate the deer become. Do they just browse? Do they eat everything to the ground? Do you have bucks rubbing the bark off newly planted trees?

You can start by protecting plants in early Spring when they are tender, juicy and pretty darn delicious. The best protection is a deer fence that surrounds your garden. The next line of defense is spraying that succulent new growth regularly until it becomes mature enough to be of less interest to the diner. Deer are creatures of habit. They tend to wend the same path through your garden so don't plant the tastiest morsels on their trails. Deer like variety so they might "sample" as they go leaving some things nibbled and others devoured. Sometimes vulnerable plants can be "fenced in" by less desirable ones. Deer tend to avoid plants that are prickly or fuzzy (like lambs ears) or toxic (daffodils, monkshood). Ferns and ornamental grasses are pretty safe from marauding deer. A few other plants to use as a living fence are bleeding hearts, amsonia, Lady's Mantle, peonies, oriental poppies, Russian Sage and strongly scented herbs. Adding a mix of deer resistant plants into a border might confuse the deer into thinking that there is nothing good to eat at your house.

Newly planted trees and shrubs are vulnerable! It might be necessary to enclose them for that first year until they become established. Surround them with a fencing that is five feet wide by five feet high. You can also spray regularly with deer repellent products. Time consuming? Yes. But worth the effort.

We can have gardens in deer country. In fact, we must since the alternative is a barren landscape. There is no color, no fragrance, no texture, no movement, no bees or butterflies, no birds, no sound.

In the weeks to come we will be featuring many deer resistant plants on these pages. They will be noted on our plant list so that you can begin to plan this years garden.

We will feature them at our Preview Talk on April 20th (free sign up now -- click here). Our plant advisors (the folks in the red baseball caps) will be available each day of the sale to point you in the right direction and answer questions.